The Poet Who Was Never Young

There’s a joke in the title of Robert Crawford’s definitive biography of Thomas S. Eliot (1888-1965), Young Eliot, because the Nobel Prize American/British poet was never young. His peers did not think of him in that way, and Eliot himself constantly referred to himself as an old man, beginning with his earliest work. In his first major poem, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock (1915), he states, “I grow old… I grow old…/I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.” He always acted like an old man, even as a child. There were reasons for this, as we will see. In the 1920 poem, “Gerontion” (i.e., an old man), he begins, “Here I am, an old man in a dry month,/Being read to by a boy, waiting for rain.” In The Waste Land (1922) the ageing issue persists, and well before its publication, according to his biographer, “he felt like an old man.”

Childhood ailments, chronic shyness, years of “emotional exhaustion” all contributed to the premature ageing process, yet Eliot lived many more years beyond the ones covered in Crawford’s biography, which is a surprise. Young Eliot concludes in 1922 when Eliot is thirty-four. A second volume—Old Eliot?—will   eventually cover the later years of his life and, hopefully, some kind of rejuvenation. That’s important because if you knew nothing about Eliot beyond the first volume of his biography, you would no doubt conclude that he would not be around much longer. Even the cover illustration of Eliot contributes to the book’s impression that he was never a young man.

Born and raised in St. Louis, with summers spent mostly in New England, Eliot grew up in an affluent, pious, and well-educated family. His father owned a profitable brick manufacturing operation. He had five older siblings; both of his parents were 45 when he was born. His mother wrote religious poetry. (They were Unitarians.) At birth, it was discovered that “he had been born with a congenital double hernia, which meant that from early on he had to wear a truss. At first he took this for granted. He seems to have assumed all boys wore one….” In spite of attempts to correct the problem, it complicated much of his later life, especially his sexual life. He also had unusually big ears and teeth described by others as “fangs.” His “body was at times a source of anxiety, even before the shy boy reached puberty.” The shyness and the awkwardness persisted for many years.

Mostly, Eliot attended private schools, which in those days meant all-male institutions. He was not a particularly strong student, though from an early age he was interested in writing and the school literary magazines. At Harvard, as an undergraduate, his education was mostly classical (as it would be in those days). He was interested in ancient languages; his writing introduced him to other young writers, such as Conrad Akin. These friendships and his courses put him in a poetic environment. His reading of contemporary poets, especially, was extensive. After completing his BA, he went to Europe, spending major time in France. (He was already mostly fluent in French). He took courses at the Sorbonne.

Crawford observes of the young man during his time in Paris, “Ultimately, Tom became a great poet through learning how to access and youngeliotarticulate unforgettably the wide spectrum of his inner life, his experience and his voracious reading. He learned to face up to and make poetry out of his own hurts, but gave his material a wider resonance through blending it with what he read.” One continual conflict was his sexual inexperience, which lead to nervous “sexual attacks.” The term—and later variants of it—will reappear throughout much of the remaining biography.

Prufrock was published in 1915, by which time Eliot had begun graduate work at Harvard, reading Eastern philosophies and religions. They became lasting influences on his subsequent writing. He also spent a year at Oxford, resulting in increased sexual tensions and complications. The two became intertwined, because one of Eliot’s mentors was Bertrand Russell, who advocated sexual liberty. Perhaps out of frustration more than anything else, Eliot married Vivien Haigh-Wood shortly after he met her. Both were 26. Many years later, Eliot reflected on the marriage, “I think that all I wanted of Vivienne (sic) was a flirtation or a mild affair; I was too shy and unpractised to achieve either with anybody. I believe I came to persuade myself that I was in love with her simply because I wanted to burn my boats and commit myself to staying in England.”

It was a troubled marriage. A few years later, Eliot published a poem, later suppressed, and called “Ode on Independence Day, July 4th 1918,” that Crawford describes as “the most disastrous wedding-night consummation in literature.” Eliot’s parents were not happy with the marriage. When he returned to the United States for a brief trip, by himself, Russell seduced Vivien, beginning a rather lengthy on/off relationship. Eliot, in the meantime, began teaching at private boys schools, continued work on his Ph.D., while writing poetry, editing literary journals, and eventually finding a more stable job at Lloyds Bank. Again, Crawford observes that Eliot’s early poems “register a fascinated fear of women and sex….” No surprise, either, that Vivien was as high-strung as her husband, given to numerous on-going illnesses.

World War I impacted all of their lives but Eliot never fought, though he did hold a brief naval appointment. To supplement his income at the bank, Eliot gave lectures, reviewed books and wrote literary essays, in addition to editing literary publications. He seemed to know everyone connected to the emerging Modernism movement, including Virginia Woolf and James Joyce. Vivien mainly vegetated, but went through phases when she wanted to become a dancer and then an actor—on top of numerous illnesses. Early in 1919, Eliot’s father died. His death may have been an influence on “Gerontion.” By 1921, he was working on The Waste Land. It was a continual battle to find a publisher for his work, and payment, when achieved, was typically modest. When Eliot’s mother visited them in London that same year, it was the first time she had met Vivien.

Extreme agitation persisted, triggered by excessive work and the complicated relationship with his wife. Noise especially bothered him. Through friends, Eliot eventually began psychotherapy in Lusanne, where he finished writing The Waste Land. Ezra Pound would subsequently “edit” the lengthy poem. By 1922, Vivien was so ill that she had trouble sleeping and moved temporarily into a nursing home. At the same time, Eliot described himself as “irritable and exhausted.” Crawford notes of their relationship at this time, “Awkwardly, the Eliots tried to aid each other, whether that meant their being apart or together. Togetherness could make them both suffer.” Vivien described herself as suffering from “Increasing mental incapacity.” Still, Crawford does not denigrate her but observes, “Vivien remained fiercely loyal to what she saw as her husband’s genius.”

Robert Crawford’s magisterial biography of T.S. Eliot’s early years concludes with the complicated publication of The Waste Land, in 1922. By mid-year these were the arrangements: the poem “was lined up to be published in London in the October Criterion, then in New York in the November Dial, then as a slim volume by Boni and Liveright in December. It would be the following year before the poem became a British book.” The American/British publications of the poem demonstrate the conflicts of his earlier life, when his loyalties were shifting, though by 1922 Eliot could be called more British (or European) than American. That, no doubt, will be one of the concerns of Crawford’s subsequent volume.

Still, Young Eliot gives us the early excitement of the poet’s search for voice and perfection, set to the multiple layers of the writer’s complicated youthful anxieties and sexual journey, his discovery of the classics and centrality to the emerging Modernist movement, his development as a craftsman, his role as son and husband, American and Anglophile. That’s quite an achievement.

To be continued.

Robert Crawford: Young Eliot

Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 469 pp., $35

Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature, at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email:

Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email = Twitter @LarsonChuck.